Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals (Album Review)

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So you’ve had the exciting debut album, full of tunes and ideas that had been burning away in the creative cortex of your brain for years.  The ideas flood out and the album is almost overcrowded with creativity and excitement.

Then comes the so called “tricky second album” where you’re expected to trip over.  You’re a more experienced act but there’s pressure now when before there was just opportunity.  There’s expectation where before there was just excitement.  And there’s money just lurking there, waiting for you to pick it up.

So what about the third album?  The one where you’re supposed to just slip seamlessly into the groove, to prove your staying power and to take your place amongst your musical peers?  It’s a milestone that’s seldom spoken of but recall, if you can or will, the trajectory of the indie rock band Oasis and their third album; Be Here Now.  The album thudded down on the floor like a tonne of bricks; bloated, unoriginal and overproduced and began the long slow death of Oasis.

Sleigh Bells are on their third album and seem determined to avoid the mistakes of some of their contemporaries.  Perhaps some will see ‘Bitter Rivals’ as a step backwards or sidewards but it’s a cleaner, leaner sound than the shred influenced sounds of ‘Reign of Terror’ and lacks the hyperactive mania of the singular ‘Treats’.

A third album in three years shows that Sleigh Bells have a hard work ethic and in between their frequent, superb live tours, they have written and recorded a slick, infectious and lean third album that still has the raucous, chorus driven songs that made their first two albums cult hits but lacks the static infused madness of the first album and much of the guitar slamming swagger of the second album.

There’s a pop vibe to be heard, that’s for sure.  Alexis Krauss’s vocals have always had a sugary tinge to them that suits pop music.  Anyone who has heard her beautiful cover of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” would know that she’s cut out to sing loud, proud and true.  Bitter Rivals showcases Alexis’s voice more than either of the first two albums.  Indeed in Treats her voice was sometimes drowned out in the crash of noise.  This is not the case any more where she’s an equal in the band, writing songs alongside the multi-talented Derek Miller.

Miller remains the bands fulcrum, writing, playing guitar and producing but the writing partnership between the two spawned the darker, more mature ‘Reign of Terror’ and now the more upbeat and optimistic ‘Bitter Rivals’.

Any band with a cult following will always face a backlash when they produce new work and some diehard fans have a view that Bitter Rivals, the title and lead out track on the album is a bit of a sell out track.  However it’s a lean, energetic, infectious piece of noise-pop, the genre that Sleigh Bells played a large part in bringing to the fore.  Built around an exciting chorus and showcasing Alexis’s outstanding vocal work, the track has clever, inventive lyrics and a slick pop friendly chorus.

It’s not the most main stream friendly track on the album.  That would be ‘Young Legends’ which is a poppy, upbeat song with a nice, choppy beat in the background and only the smallest smattering of Miller’s shredding guitar work.

This stands in sharp contrast to the swaggering ‘Tiger Kit’ which is the perfect blend of Miller’s guitar work and ever improving production work and Alexis’s vocals.  As a two piece act, Sleigh Bells has always been about the partnership between the two New Yorkers and this track is almost a blueprint of how that partnership continues to evolve, improve and synthesize.  ‘Tiger Kit’ has a touch of Pink style girl power pop, punky guitar work and slick production values which could mark it out as a breakout track.  It also has one of Sleigh Bells signature big breaks in it which, if you’ve ever seen them live, are quite often the highlight of a track.

‘You Don’t Get Me Twice’ initially appears to be a light as a feather, poppy song but is a slick, devious and seductive showcase for Alexis’s vocal work which is complex, layered and capable of several different characters within the track.  She ranges from her preppy, cheerleader voice, all breathless tones and girlish giggles, to her darker ‘Reign of Terror’ style directions and even has a mild R and B tone to it.  The lyrics are subversive and dark and this track further highlights the improving writing that Miller and Krauss have between them.

Things slow down with the gothic, moody ‘To Hell With You’.  Beautifully produced and somewhat R and B influenced again, this soulful track wouldn’t be out of place as a pop song and will surely be featured in a movie in the future.  Despite the title, this is another optimistic song with the lyrics speaking more to someone’s dedication to their love.  This is probably one of the more pop orientated tracks on the album.

’24’ takes things back to heavier territory, slamming guitar from Miller encases another delicate, keening vocal track from Krauss, things settle into the middle section and then an echoey, effects infused drum beat leads the track out into its somewhat fuzzy denouement.

‘Love Sick’ starts with an almost 8-Bit games style effects work before crashing down with rocky vocals and some fuzzy guitar work.  The chorus is a big, yearning call and almost seems a bit out of place with the empowered direction the album had taken before another burst of fierce vocals interrupt.  In this track Alexis’s voice comes across in a spectrum of work between Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper.  Once again the sweetness of Krauss voice is contrasted to the darkness of her lyrics.

All in all ‘Bitter Rivals’ is not so much of a reinvention as a refinement of the grand standing sound that boomed out during ‘Reign of Terror’.  There’s always going to be a guitar sound to Sleigh Bells; Derek Miller’s background as an alumni of ‘Poison the Well’ will always showcase his guitar work but there’s a growing fusion of their skills and their sound gets purer and less choppy with each new work.

Of course the choppy, muddled sound is part of the appeal of ‘Treats’ which may always be the favourite of most die-hard Sleigh Bells fans.  But that sort of beauty from chaos is hard to do when it no longer comes naturally to you.  Like it or not, Sleigh Bells have matured as people and as an act.  They’ve got more than four years as a recording duo and an ever growing reputation as a live act.  They were featured as one of Rolling Stone’s best fifty live acts and anyone who has seen them live with surely attest to the fact that they attack the stage with intensity and energy.

‘Bitter Rivals’ is a sleek, energetic, heartfelt, occasionally soppy and occasionally somewhat dark but far from a sell out album.  Sleigh Bells have always been about inclusivity and this album probably doesn’t widen their appeal, just make their sound slicker, richer and easier to wield.  If that brings in new fans, then they’ll have an exciting journey back across the back catalogue of a band that seem to be maturing and improving all the time.